'It set the bar a little too high' - former Leeds United defender on tougher second Premier League season, pressure and player ratings
Before the Premier League season began, there was talk from Leeds United players of this one being tougher than the last one and I think that was absolutely fair.
For a club like Leeds United, being in the Championship for such a long period of time was a real struggle yet you still had the support and everyone expected them to get out of it, it just took a long while to do that. Once we made that leap up, and it is a big leap, to play so well in that first season was good and bad. It was an incredible season and the boys performed remarkably well, but it set the bar just a little too high for lots of reasons.
Every other side is improving and investing as well, we spent close to £100m in that first summer and that was never going to happen again this summer, and the newness of the team and our tactics, the advantage we had from that fades and clearly won’t be as great in the second season. And while in the medium term the plan is to stay in the league, Andrea Radrizzani and the 49ers have this long-term plan and a desire to get into the top six. Everyone is pushing this positive message and you think right ninth last season, it must be seventh this season but that should never have been the thinking.
The pressure is on after that sort of season and everyone thinks can we raise our game? That’s the overall aim but it was always going to be tough. The players understand and, for me, all along, it’s been a case of ensuring survival and, if we got 12th or 13th, that would be delightful, it would build proper platforms for going forward.
As a player, you put pressure on yourself, you always want to improve, finish higher, win more, that’s a natural sportsperson wanting to be better. The manager always wants more, constantly looks at ways of improving, and then there’s the press and the fans. It’s easy to say just ignore external pressure but it’s difficult to put them out of the picture because you want to draw on the fans in good or bad times. When you don’t want to hear what they’ve got to say, it’s difficult to tune out.
The crazy pressure I felt at Leeds came in the season after we won the title. As the season went on, away from home we couldn’t win a game. Our home record was still very strong yet the pressure seemed to mount after three or four games. Trying to make sense of it was so difficult and we never really got on top of it at all. It was a bizarre situation I had never really experienced before. We kept trying to do the same things we had done before but the pressure built and we didn’t handle it at all.
From early on in my career, however, I took a very balanced view on external pressure. I knew what was extremely important - my own thoughts, expectations and standards and what my manager required and thought. Outside of those two, I didn’t give too much credence to a lot else. That was enough to be getting on with.
In the old days the press and the newspapers were so important for players, to get the scores and to see what was written about you. I remember playing a game for Chelsea away at Southampton. Kenny Samson was the England left-back at the time and I had just got into the England squad at 22 years of age and they were all pushing me to be the next left-back.
The first time I got the ball it hit my shin and I put it in row Z, the next one I bobbled as well and I had three or four moments right at the start of the game that were horrific. We won 2-1 and
I went on to play a little bit better but I did not have a good game. The next day it was ‘Man of the Match, England class Tony Dorigo, 9/10.’ It’s easy to get carried away with that sort of thing but I didn’t believe it at all. I was 5/10 at best on that day. When things went against you and things were written that you didn’t like, I didn’t believe that either. You’ve got to let it flow over you.
I gave up on reading the player ratings eventually. But the one place I went where it was religion to read them was in Italy. Most of the lads would walk in with this darn pink newspaper every Monday morning, La Gazzetta dello Sport, and I had no idea why because they liked to mark extremely low.
There was one poor lad who never got above a three for about five games and you could see it in his face every Monday morning when he opened the paper up. Why do that to yourself?
What’s the point? It’s just one person’s view and it’s interesting to look at but not to be taken too seriously.
The media coverage of the Premier League is brilliant, though, and part of a fantastic overall package delivered by the division.
Our top flight has retained, to a point, the real English essence, the physical aspects and a mentality that is really important. I’ll never forget in one of my early games for Torino in Italy, we might have been one or two down and you could sense the players suddenly going backwards rather than forwards. The Italian view at the time seemed to be ‘we don’t want this to get any worse so let’s keep things tight’. The Premier League view is very much ‘let’s go and get two goals ourselves.’
Everyone thinks they can beat everyone else in the Premier League. Add the financial aspect, allowing world-class players and managers to be brought in and making sure the standards are always going up and you can understand why it will always take a little while for players coming from abroad to adapt.
It’s different to Spain, Italy, France and Germany. There are other top leagues where the number one and two clubs can coast through certain games. There are no games in the Premier League that you can cruise through.
Leeds know that well and will approach Southampton away on Saturday accordingly. Getting that first win under their belt and the manner they did it in, with a dominant performance against Watford, will give them confidence. One or two players will hopefully be back and they will be looking at the next three games with relish. Hopefully they can go out and grab a few more points.